Do you know when it dawns on me that Singapore has her own brand of spoken English? Every time I speak to exchange students. All the times I've had to stop and explain what the lor or hor in my sentence meant or attempt to give an explanation for why we insert a "one" at the end of sentences sometimes ("Always kena asked one"), it hits me. We speak Singlish.
Examining the Singlish culture and what it really is, is in no way novel; many people have tried to expound on the topic of our laced vernacular. But for the sake of it, Singlish is a colloquial form of English unique to Singapore - and although often a great cause of bewilderment for foreigners, it has come to be something that Singaporeans view as part of their national identity.
Singlish's roots, of course, lie in our forefathers’ valiant attempts to understand each other using a common language. Imagine migrants from China, India, Malaya and Europe in the 19th century attempting to find a common language to converse in with each other, their conversations punctuated by their first language's words to describe things they didn't know if the other person's spoken language had. We made it work: we borrowed from Hokkien, Malay, and Indian dialects, sometimes playing by the rules of Chinese grammar. But our rich linguistic diversity soon became displaced by the English language during the British rule of Singapore, and then even more, when English was made the main language upon our independence. Still, the inhabitants of our island nation found a way make the language their own. Over the years, Singaporeans continued to embed the languages of our foreign forefathers' past into the lingua franca of the Lion City, giving birth to Singlish.
Despite calls for Singaporeans to embrace their identity, the government has been disapproving of the community effort that is Singlish and has, for some time, undertaken efforts to encourage “better English”, perhaps because Singlish was deemed to be distasteful. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong described Singlish to be “English corrupted by Singaporeans” and maintained that it risked miscommunication, and negatively impacted Singapore’s competitive edge in political, business, and academic fields. The Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), launched ambitiously in 2000 to eradicate Singlish, unfortunately failed to gain any traction. Since then, SGEM is resurrected annually to less fanfare and with more modest goals, such as teaching the difference between “Can” and “May”.
While Singapore’s education standards continue to improve, and post-millennials perhaps speaking “better English” than their grandparents, I'm glad that Singlish hasn't lost its footing. Instead, Singlish has evolved to become a lovable quirk of the Little Red Dot. The paramount SG50 National Day Parade paid homage to it with its display of floats with Singlish expressions, alongside national icons like the dragon playground and Changi Airport control tower. Local T-shirt brand label Statement lives up to its name by making breezy, fun t-shirts and tote bags using ubiquitous Singlish terms in eye-catching prints. Further, the inclusion of 19 Singlish items into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 2016, including ang moh, shiok and killer litter, has brought glee to Singlish supporters, and also sheds some light on where Singlish thrives in media - while researching on Singlish words, OED consultants steered clear of academic journals and trawled through the National Library Board database, newspaper archives, and teenage, music, and lifestyle magazines instead to see how locals wrote and conversed.
Singaporeans have a knack for code-switching, that is to say, the practice of shifting the languages used in conversation. People code-switch because they want to convey a thought or fit in. For example, many students, although from different ethnic backgrounds, use jiayou as the standard battle cry before examinations - a Mandarin term, which roughly translates to “You can do it!” but holds the literal meaning “add oil”. Singlish may not be appreciated in the classroom, but one can still mourn over their stack of readings with friends in the way of: “Jialat lah, so much until cannot already”.
Conversations with groupmates you may have just met might be carried out in subdued English at first, but the moment they earn the title of kaki (good friend), you suddenly find yourself using every Singlish item in your arsenal as you banter. The same goes for eating dinner in food courts, hawker centres, and kopitiams as opposed to upscale cafes and restaurants. Black tie events inadvertently demand dignified conversations, with the host or waiter, in English. On the other side, you'll be appropriately flummoxed when ordering at a HDB coffee shop if the words xiu dai,kosong, and tapau make no sense.
Singlish is irrevocably a building block of Singapore’s culture – a bit like the butter and kaya that glue our morning toast together. Whether it is distasteful or not, sometimes Singlish just provides the most satisfying way to get a message across - and we are confirm not going to stop doing that. Because you know, other languages cmi cos they liddat lor.